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Celebrating Mothering Sunday

This Sunday, if you are here in the UK, I’ll be showcasing three great ‘Spring bars’ from Zotter, Puchero and Chocolarder on Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch. If you have a TV, it’s Channel 4 😉 but you can also watch online HERE.

And next Sunday is Mother’s Day here in the UK (in the US it’s not for a few more months; May 8th). So this week we’ve assembled a bunch of great chocolate gifts to delight any mother… and tried to trace the history and practises of ‘Mothering Sunday’. See HERE for the full selection, and below for some highlights.

Mothers’ Day in Ancient Times

Celebrating mothers is a well established (and well deserved!) tradition; it dates at least as far back as the ancient Greeks who celebrated Rhea, the mother of all their gods and goddesses, every spring. As ever, the Romans took these traditions and applied their own interpretation with festivals to Cybele (their mother Goddess) in March. 

And then the Christian church again ‘adopted’ these festivals, switching Cybele for the virgin Mary and encouraging people to return to their “mother church” (i.e. the church where they were baptized, or nearest cathedral) as opposed to any “daughter church” that they might be regularly visiting because they’d married and moved away, etc. The date for ‘Mothering Sunday’ was set to be the fourth Sunday before Easter (so it moves around a lot). And to help its celebration, the Lenten fast was relaxed on this mid-lent Sunday (hence why Mothering Sunday was once also known as ‘Refreshment Sunday’). And by the middle ages, Mothering Sunday had become well established as a Sunday where families could assemble, and indulge in a “proper Sunday lunch” that spoiled mum even though they were mid way through Lent.

Mothering Sunday: UK and US Versions

However, during the 18th and 19th centuries, celebrations of Mothering Sunday declined here in the UK (perhaps because industrialisation and  factory work made returning to the mother churches harder, perhaps Lenten fasts were less practised). And it was only following the establishment of Mother’s Day in the US, that efforts were made to resuscitate it here in the UK. Note: in the US Mothers’ Day is celebrated on the second Sunday in May, and is attributed to Anna Jarvis from Grafton, West Virginia who wanted to honour her late mother, and pushed for holiday to celebrate all mothers. And while Jarvis was delighted by President Woodrow Wilson making it an official holiday in 1914, she was horrified by it’s later commercialisation (indeed she coined the phrase “Hallmark holiday” as term to show her displeasure).

In the UK Constance Penswick Smith created the ‘Mothering Sunday Movement’ in response to Anna Jarvis’ US movement. And to support her cause Constance wrote plays, histories and a eulogy to all aspects of motherhood that should be celebrated: “The Church: Our Mother”, “The Mother of Jesus”, “Gifts of Mother Earth” and “Mothers of Earthly Homes”. She was amazingly successful. And by the post war period, Mothering Sunday was back in full swing.

The tradition of family gatherings is back in full swing. And for those of us who can’t make it in person, there is always the phone (or Zoom); back in the 1990s in the US, Mother’s day witnessed more phone calls than any other day of the year, with phone traffic spiking by over 35%.

Whether you can make it in person, or call/Zoom, if you’d like to treat your mother to a great present, may we suggest some of the below gifts; we’ve everything from gift boxes to truffles, wine and chocolate pairings, to even a tasting session.  Please see below for more details.

As ever, thanks for your support.

Spencer

P.S. For any whisky and chocolate lovers, please check out  our friends at Raasay Distillery for a virtual whisky and chocolate tasting hosted by Rachel McCormack on April 14th. Find out more HERE.

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Why the Easter Bunny gives out Chocolate Eggs

Easter is now less than a hop, skip and jump away. So we are getting into gear with our next in-person tasting on the 12th April, launching our Easter store, plus exploring the tangled warren of different traditions that have us now celebrating Easter with chocolate bunnies and eggs.

Easter Bunnies (and Hares)

Following the tale of ‘The Easter Bunny’ involves going down a rabbit warren of different traditions that came together in late 17th century Germany with the first “Easter Hare” before this was combined with chocolate eggs in the late 19th Century.

  • The link between rabbits, spring, fertility and the ‘rebirth’ of Easter is relatively obvious given the way that rabbits are well known for breeding like, well, rabbits. And these ‘kittens’ are often born around Easter time (note: technically, and very confusingly, when baby rabbits are first born they are called kittens, not bunnies).
  • The link between hares and Easter is less obvious. Hares have long been associated with the Virgin Mary as in Roman times it was (mistakenly) believed that hares were hermaphrodites and so could reproduce without sex. So in medieval church paintings and manuscripts hares were often used to symbolize the idea of the Virgin birth.
  • The first record we have of an Easter Bunny (or to be exact, an Easter Hare) giving out eggs, dates back to 1682 where Georg Franck Von Frackenau describes a German Lutheran folk take of an Easter Hare bringing eggs for well behaved children. German immigrants to the US in the 1700s brought this tradition with them, and there are mentions in Pennsylvania diaries from the 1700s of an egg-laying hare (called the ‘Osterhase’) and children making nests for this hare to lay their anticipated Easter eggs.

And the link to eggs?

The next puzzle is why the Easter Bunny/Hare laid, and gave out, eggs. And here the history is also convoluted and requires a lot of disentangling:

  • Along with rabbits, eggs have been used as fertility symbols since antiquity, and as early as the 1st century AD eggs were associated by the Christian Church with rebirth.
  • In medieval times, eggs became one of the many foods that were prohibited during lent, in the run up to Easter. So before the start of Lent, parents would hand out eggs as special treats to children, and, rather like the origins of Boxing Day, children would go door to door asking for eggs before they started their Lenten fasts.
  • These traditions were then combined with the ancient custom of decorating eggs (the earliest decorated eggs date back more than 60,000 years to Howieson Poort Shelter, a cave in South Africa). Over the centuries, different ways were found to colour eggs and use them as gifts; for example, court records detail how Edward I of England dyed over 450 eggs with onion skins to give to his court for Easter in 1290.
  • During the 18th century, chocolate was added to the mix. Louis XIV used to give decorated ostrich eggs to his court favourites, and one of his chocolate cooks had the bright idea of replacing these ostrich eggs with chocolate moulded to look like ostrich eggs. And this was followed in Turin where a Mme. Giambone started filling empty chicken egg shells with molten chocolate in 1725.
  • It took the UK some time to catch up. The Victorians started to give out chocolate for Easter, but it wasn’t until 1873 that J.S. Fry & Sons claim to have launched the first British Chocolate Easter egg in 1873, closely followed by Cadbury in 1875.

Today these different themes of eggs, chocolate, bunnies and hares have been conflated and combined to create an extravaganza of chocolate Easter bunnies, Easter eggs… and much else. It’s hard to obtain exact numbers but estimates of the UK gifting over 80 million eggs are often quoted; and that doesn’t include Creme Eggs (Cadbury sells annually over 500 million of these, two thirds in the UK).

Tastings and Easter Gifts

At our tasting on the 12th April, we’ll be talking more about these traditions and the history of Easter, as well as tasting a bunch of great chocolates. Plus please see below, and in our Easter store, for a selection of great Easter treats including:

As ever, thanks for your support.

Spencer

P.S. Tim Spector and Jonathan Wolfe of ZOE (and the Covid 19 app) fame, interviewed me in a podcast that’s just been released as part of their excellent “Science and Nutrition” podcast series.

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Celebrating Women in Craft Chocolate

Tuesday 8th March is International Women’s Day.  

To celebrate, we have put together a number of boxes, and bars, that highlight women craft chocolate makers, and also women growing cocoa and sourcing cacao. 

We’ve also taken this opportunity to step back and look at the incredible contribution made by women at all levels of the craft chocolate industry; from makers to growers, from authors to competition judges, and from scientists to everyday enthusiasts. At all these levels women are clearly leading craft chocolate. It’s not easy to do exact comparisons to other industries or to ‘big chocolate’. But it’s worth making some anecdotal comparisons as it may offer another perspective, and help explain why the craft chocolate world is so passionate about converting people to delight in chocolate that tastes better, is better for you, and better for the farmers and planet.

Making and Crafting: The Role of Women

At Cocoa Runners we are honoured to be working with over 150 different craft chocolate makers. Pre-covid we tried to meet in person with each of these makers; either visiting their operations or meeting them at fairs. Since covid, we’ve not been able to do this. But we’ve still virtually met, and had long conversations over Zoom etc., with all of these makers. And as part of building ‘maker profiles‘, we get to know them well, and how they operate, pretty well.

So we’ve crunched some numbers, looking at the number of women who’ve firstly founded and secondly who lead the crafting of their companies’ bars. And the results are extraordinary. In over 50% of the craft chocolate makers we work with, the founding teams either were all women, or with both men and women. And for almost the same proportion, the actual chocolate ‘crafting’ is also done by women, or shared between men and women.

Unsurprisingly there are some geographic differences; in the UK, almost 80% of the founding teams were all women, or men and women together, and in the US it’s almost two thirds. It’s lower in mainland Europe (just below 50%), and around 40% in Asia, Africa, Australia, Latin America and the Caribbean. But it’s moving in the right direction.

And it’s not just ‘a numbers game’. Just sticking with the ‘women only’ founding and making teams, we are spoiled with an amazing choice of bars. Lisi, founder and chief chocolate maker of Shatell, won chocolate maker of the year in 2017. In the Americas, Jenny from Conexión, Luisa Abram, DeAnn of Solstice, Christine of Palette Des Binnes and Ana of Mucho all craft awarding winning bars. In Europe, Agur and Siv of Fjåk (Norway) won “rising new star”. Tomoko-san and Sue of Feitoria do Cacao (Portugal) have also won medals galore. And here in the UK, Isobel of Dormouse, Ama of Lucocoa, Luisa of Luisa’s Vegan Chocolate and Deana from Tosier have similarly won multiple awards and accolades.

Apologies for any oversights; we’ll try to update this list regularly.

And below are some bars, and some boxes, created by these women.

…Comparison to Mass Confectionery

Unfortunately we haven’t found a database that offers an easy comparison or benchmarking to women’s position in mainstream chocolate.  

But there are some useful tools if you want to do more research; for example for the UK you can use https://gender-pay-gap.service.gov.uk/ and see that for e.g., Cadbury, women comprise less than 10% of all the “highest earning jobs”.

And, revealingly, there are, yet again, a number of great ‘promises’ and ‘pledges’ being made by ‘big chocolate’. Just as Callebaut is promising to end child labour in all its chocolate by 2025 (promised almost two decades after the BBC aired it’s first documentary on child slave labour), it’s also pledging to make “more progress in gender balance at senior level … 40% women at director level … 30% women at director level in sales”. Mars, Hershey’s, Olam and Nestlé all have similar pledges … but tellingly they don’t benchmark where they are coming from TODAY in their organisations.

Women on the Farm

The inequities and inequalities of women versus men in big chocolate are even more extreme ‘on the ground’. Over 90% of West African cocoa farmers earn less than the living income benchmark. Or in dollars and cents, the average income for a cocoa farmer in West Africa approximates to US$0.84 per day. And for women working in cocoa farming, it’s even worse; US$0.23. Fixing this inequity is also the the key to fixing everything from deforestation to child slave labour. And fixing this means paying more for cocoa, and paying more for cocoa means seeing it as more than just a commodity.

Craft chocolate is at the vanguard here; to make great craft chocolate you need great beans. And to secure great beans, you have to pay the farmers appropriately (craft chocolate pays a premium of 3-10 times more than commodity cocoa prices and signs long term commitments). Trying to clean up supply chains by “inspecting them”, ”checking that kids are in school”, “highlighting the issue” etc. may make you feel better (and it can make great advertising copy, as Tony’s shows). But to fix the problem, we need to stop treating cocoa as ‘just another commodity’; we need to pay farmers (men and women) for growing great beans.

And yet again, women in craft chocolate are leading many of these initiatives. Kate and Justine are spearheading this at Cacao Latitudes. As is Emily from Uncommon Cacao. And Katrin, Alix and Jeannette from Silva. Plus Marika is trying to do this with Pacha de Cacao, her cocoa pulp fruit drink (sorry we are currently out of stock; but we are trying to get resupplies of this great product).

In addition there are a number of initiatives like ‘Femme Du Virunga‘, where women cocoa growers have created women cocoa co-operatives, especially welcome in the Eastern Congo given the dire combination of wars, destitution and violence against women. Luisa (of Luisa’s Vegan Chocolate) is building a similar initiative in Colombia. Please see below for a range of bars crafted from beans grown these initiatives.

Research

Much of the research into what is happening on the ground is also being done by women. Kristy Leissle continues to do great research here (her book ‘Cocoa’ is a must-read on this), and we are delighted to be holding another ‘Craft Chocolate in Conversation’ with her on the 17th May (more details coming soon). Similarly, Amanda Berlan does extraordinary work on child labour and unpacking the claims of big chocolate for its initiatives (see her critique and expose of Nestlé, and please read her insights on how divorce is linked to so many of the income inequalities in West Africa). And Stephanie Barrientos continues to do pioneering work on many gender and cocoa issues in West Africa and India.

Ayn Riggs is leading the charge for slave free chocolate, and huge kudos to her for taking a stand against Tony’s without fear of the blowback.

And in the area of cocoa plant genetics, great work is being done by scientists including Frances Bekele and Sarah Bharath, and for fermentation and farming best practises Zoi Papalexandratou shows what can be done (see bars crafted with the Betulia bars from Colombia she helps grow and ferment here from Taucherli and Krak).

Authors and Books

Many of these researchers have produced insightful books. If you want to read just one recently published book, please try Kristy Leissle’s ‘Cocoa’. And if you want a deep dive into the horrors that Ayn Riggs is fighting against in ‘Slave Free Chocolate’, please try Orla Ryan’s ‘Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa’. Or if you want the definitive history, try Sophie Coe’s unbeatable ‘The True History of Chocolate’. All great books. All authored by women.

A number of other women authors use chocolate to describe other aspects of their interest in food and cooking, such as Jenny Linford and Vanessa Kimble.

And another hat tip to two women involved in the book industry, Kathryn Laverack and Cat Black, for their work in pairing craft chocolate to book clubs.

Bloggers and Journalists

Outside of formal books and long publications on chocolate, there are a number of journalists and bloggers in the world of chocolate. And again, a huge number of these are written by women; and at the risk of offending many, here are a number to follow:

  • Annalisa Barbieri – The Guardian and Observer’s chocolate journalist,
  • Sharon Terenzi – The Chocolate Journalist,
  • Megan Giller – Chocolate Noise,
  • Lauren Heineck – Chocolate in Conversation,
  • Pam Williams – Ecole Chocolat (also great for chocolate making courses and more).

Judges, Fairs and Tasters

Women also played (and continue to play) a crucial role in the judging, and awards, of craft chocolate. The Academy of Chocolate (AoC) was established by the much missed Sarah Jayne Staynes, and her work is being brilliantly continued by Silvija Davidson, Marie-Pierre Moine, Chantal Cody and Sara Jane Evans. Similarly Martin at the International Chocolate Awards (ICA) works with a host of women from the US (George Gensler and Maricel Presilla), Italy (Monica Meschini) and Germany (Michaela Schupp).

And then moving outside the UK, Caroline Lubbers in Amsterdam has done amazing work with the Chocoa Festival (and in promoting the Rokbar with Lisi from Shatell).

And these bodies are also hugely assisted by the amazing palates, and judging support, of numerous women, again from all over the world, again, apologies for those I may be missing, but huge hat tips to Terese Fenger Weiss, Jen Earle, Judith Lewis, Hazel Lee, Cat Black, Lauren Adler, Harmony Marsh and Lizzie Jackson (again, I’m not great with names, so huge apologies for all those I’ve missed.

Scientific Research

Much of the ‘delight’ from chocolate is all about the wonderful complexities, length and varieties of ‘flavour’ that we can enjoy in craft chocolate. And again, much our understanding of flavour can be tracked back to the pioneering work of Linda Buck who won the Nobel prize in 2004 for her work on the mechanics of our olfactory system and receptors. Much still remains to be done, and chocolate is a great tool for flavour experiments. And if you want to read more about this, please try Ann-Sophie Barwich’s ‘Smellosophy’.

Summary

So from our understanding of chocolate’s flavour down to who crafts, makes, writes about, judges and promotes craft chocolate, a huge thanks to all the women leading the ‘Craft Chocolate Revolution’. If you’ve attended any of our tastings you’ll know that craft chocolate tastes better, is better for you, is better for the farmers, and better for the planet; and we’ve another reason to add to this; the pioneering work by women in craft chocolate is an amazing opportunity to celebrate RIGHT NOW  (as opposed to big chocolate’s future promises and pledges).

Finally, a huge thank to our warehouse and customer support team, which is run by the wonderful (women) team of Sarah, Becky, Lucie and Megan. Wishing you all a great weekend, and please celebrate this Tuesday’s International Women’s Day with some craft chocolate crafted, grown, sourced, researched and judged by women.

Spencer

P.S. If you are looking for other initiatives to celebrate, may we recommend a wine tasting by Corney & Barrow (and yes, there will of course be some chocolate involved for all participants).

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A plea for more chocolate… and more books on chocolate

Next Thursday (March 3rd), is National Book Day here in the UK. So it seems timely to pull together some suggestions, and thoughts, on books, chocolate and even book clubs.

There are lots and lots and lots of great novels featuring chocolate. And every holiday season sees the publication of more ‘coffee table books’ on recipes and cooking, and even a few on bean-to-bar chocolate. We’ve started to assemble a list of these. And we’d love your help in updating this (and describing their strengths).

But unlike coffee, beer, wine, and many other foods, there are some curious gaps when it comes to books about chocolate. The chocolate world in recent years hasn’t had an equivalent of the likes of Merlin Sheldrake (for fungi), Rachel McCormack (for whisky), Frances and Bronwen Percival (for cheese), Fuchsia Dunlop (for Chinese food), Mark Kurlansky (for cod, salt, etc.), Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson (for wine) or James Hoffmann and Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood (for coffee).

Back in the 1990s and early 2000s a raft of great histories and investigative histories of chocolate were published. But since then, it’s been a bit quiet.

(Note: I really hope I’m wrong here and that one of you readers can point me in the right direction; please do share your suggestions).

Below are a bunch of great books that do cover chocolate, but it’s still puzzling as to why in recent years there haven’t been more history books, examinations of flavour, exposés of chocolate’s darker side, etc. So below are some attempts to explore these gaps.

Secrecy

The chocolate industry is notoriously closed and secretive. For example, Joël Glenn Brenner, who claims to be the first historian to secure direct access to both Hershey and Mars, notes early on in his ‘The Emperors of Chocolate’ how he was “requested” not to write where the Mars family “parked their cars or describe even what sort of cars they drove” (heaven forbid there should have been a photo!). And since this book, authors have struggled to obtain access to many of the major chocolate companies (spoiler alert; it’s an interesting book; but don’t expect any great secrets about cars or families).  

And the chocolate industry also has an abundance of other darker secrets that people and companies still want to keep under wraps. For example, any mention of Cadbury’s role in the awful history of São Tomé and Príncipe’s use of slave labour to harvest cocoa is, unsurprisingly, glided over in any of their ‘official’ biographies. Catherine Higgs’ biography of Henry Nevinson, the journalist who revealed this scandal, (Chocolate Islands (2008)) has helped correct these imbalances. And Orla Ryan’s ‘Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa’ (2012) did a great service investigating the modern day issues of child slave labour in West Africa as congressmen Harkin and Engel raised these issues in the US Congress.

But even though the challenges of living income, child labour, deforestation, desertification, etc. have worsened (and not just in West Africa, but also South America) this, sadly, hasn’t resulted in any more exposés.

The best recent book covering these challenges (and a whole lot more) is Kristy’s Leissle’s ‘Cocoa’. If you want one balanced and insightful book on cocoa’s challenges, read this.

Complex, Multi-Continent and Multi-Century History

Back in the 1990s, Sophie Coe (and her husband) published ‘The True History of Chocolate’ dating back from Mesoamerica to the ‘current day’ (i.e. 1990s). At around the same time, William Gervase Clarence Smith published ‘Cocoa and Chocolate’, focused on the period 1764-1914, with TONNES of great statistics.

These two books remain the ‘go to’ historical works on chocolate (in English at least). And both have been updated. But unlike many other foods and drinks, these two works haven’t been followed by any other historical studies that combine the same easy to read with great scholarship.

Part of this may well be that there isn’t a tonne of documentary evidence about chocolate for it’s first five thousand years (i.e. from 3,500B.C. through to the Spanish conquest and destruction of the Aztec Empire; we’ve a few glyphs and a few drawings, but no written records). 

Another factor may well be the sheer complexity of chocolate’s history over the last 500 years. So whereas the history of tea’s move from China to India can be credited to one figure (Robert Fortune) with a critical bit of kit (the Wardian case), the spread of chocolate from South America to Africa and Asia is far more complex (side note: if you want a great read on tea do try ‘For all the Tea in China’ by Sarah Rose, and for a parallel in coffee, try Dave Eggers’ ‘The Monk of Mokha’). Even the way chocolate changed from being a ‘daily drink’ to ‘everyday bar’ in the 19th century is the result of a whole host of inventors and developments, including (but not limited to):

  • The cocoa press (Van Houten),
  • Stoneground bars for eating (Fry),
  • Smooth bars via conching (Lindt),
  • Milk chocolate bars (Peter and Nestle),
  • Smooth bars that even melt via tempering (Tobler).

If you’ve been to one of our craft chocolate tastings you’ll know that it’s not easy to summarise these many twists and turns. But it’s still surprising that no-one has tried to tell any of these stories.

The good news is that there are a bunch of well respected academics in the field, e.g, Carla Martin and Kathryn Sampeck. And hopefully they’ll be publishing more soon.

Commoditisation and Ingredients

Most fans of wine prefer to drink it rather than cook with it. Cheese is similar. And coffee aficionados disdain milk in specialty coffee. There is a tonne of research into what creates flavour, balance, complexity in wine, cheese, beer, etc.  And much of this research into flavour has been translated, and made accessible, for wine, by the likes of Jancis Robinson, James Halliday, Hugh Johnson etc. and for coffee by James Hoffmann, etc.

In comparison, most of the chocolate we consume is an ingredient for cakes, ice cream, biscuits, etc. And sadly chocolate as an ingredient is most often used as a vector for other flavours, rather than its own flavours. Consequently much of the consumer oriented ‘scientific’ literature on chocolate is more around cooking and recipes, not around the whys and hows of chocolate’s flavours.

And because chocolate for big chocolate companies is a ‘commodity ingredient’, much of their scientific research is focused on the likes of crop yield and disease resistance. The big chocolate companies have LOTS of research on cocoa beans. But they treat these as trade secrets. And they are more concerned with higher yielding clones (CCN51, CC81, etc.) than preserving, and showcasing heirloom cocoa varietals with their wonderful flavours (hat tip to the Heirloom Cacao Project here… but we’ve ways to go: Wine has identified over three thousand grape varieties while the HCP has so far registered less than 20 heirloom cacao varieties).

Bottom line: There hasn’t (yet) been much research into what drives flavour in cocoa, so there is no opportunity to translate this into books that really explain the intricacies of chocolate’s flavour. And be sceptical of coffee table picture books promising otherwise.

If you want to understand more about the flavour, aromas and complexity of the cocoa bean, the best books that have been recently published sadly aren’t specifically about chocolate. If you want an understanding of chocolate’s flavour a great place to start is Harold McGee’s ‘Nose Dive’, even though this has only a couple of dozen pages within its 1000 or so others. Or go back to first principles with Anne Sophie Barwick’s ‘Smellosophy’. Or even try Brillat Savarin. And then practise tasting. And come to one of Professor Barry Smith’s tastings.

Note: Chocolate has had a few books that can be compared to the ‘encyclopaedias’ annually updated for wine by the likes of James Halliday, Robert Parker, Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson, etc. We had the wonderful Georg Bernadini with his reviews and tasting notes on over 1000 chocolates. But this MASSIVE tome is now sadly out of print, and a little out of date. However, now Georg has more time, perhaps he’ll update it! (You can join the waitlist for this book HERE). Similarly, Sarah Jane Evans back in 2010 wrote ‘Chocolate Unwrapped’ which, as is to be expected from a Master of Wine and founding member of the Academy of Chocolate, covers tasting chocolate with insight and authority; but it’s now sadly out of print.

Misleading Science and the Bliss Point

Ever since chocolate was introduced to Europe, pamphlets and books have linked chocolate from everything from “sex and libido” to “baldness and bad breath”, with very little scientific basis.

In particular since research on the Yuna tribe in the 1960s linked heart health to chocolate (and fish), ‘big chocolate’ has realised that there is a tonne of marketing mileage to be had from commissioning, and then publishing, studies showing the links between chocolate and just about anything ‘healthy’ (for a fun list on everything from how chocolate can clean your teeth to improve your complexion please see a previous blog entry HERE).

Whilst these ‘scientific’ studies make for great articles and chapters in books, the tiny size of these studies means that it’s unwise to place much credence in them. So even if the pictures in the books on the likes of raw chocolate are alluring, and even if their “too good to be true” claims are attractive, please be very wary. The ‘science’ behind these sorts of coffee table books is, to be blunt, hogwash.

And if you want to be even more cynical, these pseudo health studies also may also be promoted to avoid the issue of what makes mass produced chocolate so addictive. Unlike coffee with caffeine or wine with alcohol, what makes chocolate addictive isn’t inherent to chocolate. Theobromine, the stimulant in chocolate, is NOT addictive (see HERE).  But what is addictive in mass produced chocolate etc. is SUGAR. And of course this topic is left out of the happy chocolate literature and chocolate superfood books as it opens up a whole can of other issues.

If you want  insights into chocolate nutritional benefits (and a lot of debunking), you’d be best off reading the chapter in Tim Spector’s ‘Spoon-Fed: Why Almost Everything We’ve Been Told About Food Is Wrong’ rather than the claptrap written about raw chocolate, chocolate as a superfood, etc.

Recipes and Cooking

For any avid cook (and those liking great pictures of chocolate), the good news is that every year more and more recipe books featuring chocolate are being published.

And more and more historical cookbooks are also being reprinted (or at least made available digitally). Some of these historical tomes are really fun; for example see a previous blog post for the first book with a chocolate recipe (it’s for ice cream, and is overleaf from what is thought to be the first recipe for tomato ketchup), and for the wonderful history of how Toulouse Lautrec helped popularise chocolate mousse. 

And chocolate is also increasingly being taken as worthy of inclusion in more serious food books, for example if you want to understand the crucial importance of time to craft chocolate, Jenny Linford has this covered in ‘Time, The Missing Ingredient‘ (see below for the book, along with Jenny’s playlist of bars).

…And Coffee Table Books

Agents and publishers have also realised that people like looking at pictures of chocolate cakes, chocolate being ground, great vistas of the jungle, etc. So along with cooking books, more and more coffee table books for gifting etc. are being published.  

Sadly many of these coffee table books perpetuate the pseudo science claims for chocolate, regurgitating nonsense about coconut blossom sugar, raw chocolate, etc. And they’ve half baked, poorly researched copy that mislead about cocoa’s history, biology, etc.

But there are a number of notable exceptions. A number of craft chocolate makers have produced beautiful books that tell you about their journey into craft chocolate, along with some of their favourite recipes (e.g., Raaka, Dandelion, Casa Cacao, etc.)

And if you want to understand more about the science of craft chocolate making, farming and flavour, these books are insightful. If you want to understand why craft chocolate has so much depth, length, balance and complexity these books will illustrate the difference between remoulding mass processed chocolate and crafting directly from great beans. And you’ll be able to see why roasting the whole bean, and not penny pinching to roast just the nibs without their shells, makes such a difference.

Novels and Book Clubs

Chocolate has a bunch of great novels (and many are now movies). ‘Chocolat’ by Joanne Harris. Roald Dahl’s ‘Charlie and The Chocolate Factory’ (and yes, there is a new movie coming up). ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ by Laura Esquivel. ‘Chocolate’ by Sandra Boynton. ‘Chocolate Fever’ by Robert Kimmel Smith. ‘A Room Full of Chocolate’ by Jane Elson. We’re compiling a list, so please help us and add more HERE, and vote for your favourite too.

And a whole bunch of classic detective whodunnits have also just been republished; so if you are a fan of Agatha Christie, please do check out ‘The Poisoned Chocolates Case’ by Anthony Berkeley.

Any which way, there are some great books on chocolate, and some great chocolate playlists to go with these books (see HERE);so please celebrate National Book Day in style.

Thanks as ever for your support, and happy reading!

Spencer

P.S. I really enjoyed being interviewed by Amelia Rope on Instagram Live  this Thursday; if you’d like to catch up, please see HERE.

P.P.S. If you are a fan of book clubs, please do check out Kathryn Laverack and Cat Black’s HERE.

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Too Good to be True? The Story of Leptin and Ghrelin

Chocolate shot to success in sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe thanks to being both “delicious” and “nutritious and filling” (and if you want to hear more about how smart marketing by the Jesuits and Papacy made drinking chocolate take off around Europe, please come to a virtual tasting).

Fast forward to today, and more and more nutritional wonders are being claimed for chocolate. Many of these studies are based on the discovery of hormones that sound a little like characters from The Hobbit, ‘ghrelin’ and ‘leptin’. Leptin was isolated by Douglas Coleman and Jeffery Friedman in 1994 and helps explain why we feel satiated and full (and then stop eating). Ghrelin was isolated a few years later in 1999 by Masayasu Kojima and Kenji Kangawa and is critical in determining how, and when, we feel hungry (and start eating). And there’s also glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP1), peptide YY, oxyntomodulin (OXM), orexin, glucagon and a bunch of others (hat tip to Professor Peter Goodfellow for extending this list).

Researchers have performed all sorts of further studies based off these discoveries; measuring for example how just sniffing foods like chocolate impacts leptin and ghrelin levels. See below for a few examples that sound “too good to be true”, and why some scepticism may be called for (hint: check the sample size).  

Plus we’ve details on ZOE, the company running the world’s largest nutrition study (and also the world’s largest Covid 19 study), where you can do your own personal experiments on chocolate (and much else).

Too Good to Be True?

Since the discoveries of ghrelin and leptin (and other hormones impacting hunger), scientists have had great fun designing various experiments, including:

  • Researchers in Denmark produced a paper suggesting that merely smelling dark chocolate can “increase satiety” (i.e. make you feel full) and decrease ghrelin levels. They also reported that the reduction in your ghrelin level was the same whether you ate, or merely smelled, the chocolate. Sadly the study didn’t show that you can double your feeling of satiety by first sniffing and then savouring your chocolate, although this is still the way we’d recommend enjoying your craft chocolate.
  • Another study, this time of US college students, revealed that describing the same 380 calorie milkshake as either “a 620-calorie “indulgent” shake” or a “140-calorie “sensible” shake” dramatically impacted how full participants felt, and how much ghrelin they produced. That is to say even though the two milkshakes were exactly the same, how full people felt, and how much their ghrelin levels declined, was driven by being told whether the items were low or high in calories and nutritional content. So even though these sadly there weren’t chocolate milkshakes, it does argue that you should luxuriate in the richness, the calories, and all the nutritional benefits of your chocolate as this will both psychologically and physiologically benefit you.

One of the major problems with both of these studies is their small sample size. The Danish study on smelling versus savouring chocolate had 12 subjects. And the milkshake study had 46. To be fair, it’s mainly the media reporting of these studies that have ‘hyped’ the results. For example the milkshake study conclusion reads “The effect of food consumption on ghrelin may be psychologically mediated, and mindset meaningfully affects physiological responses to food”, which I suspect most of us would agree with … once we’ve read this a couple of times.

Sample Size

Small sample sizes are, as any good scientist will testify, the Achilles’ heel of much research. For more on this, in particular with sugar, see an upcoming email where we’ll debunk the claims for coconut blossom sugar being healthier and a whole lot of other bunkum on ‘alternative sugars’ (see HERE for a teaser).

There are HUGE variations in how different people respond to different products depending on all sorts of personal, and environmental, factors (e.g., time of day, tiredness etc.). So it’s hard to rely on such small numbers.

What we really need are bigger studies. And more personalisation.

Personalised Nutrition

As in many other spheres ‘big data’ is trying to address these challenges, making waves not just in food but many aspects of health. For example, the covid 19 app launched by Professor Tim Spector and the ZOE team has hugely helped, and sped up, the understanding of covid by assembling millions of people to report regularly on their covid status and symptoms.

The ZOE team was originally set up to provide insights into “how your gut, blood sugar and blood fat respond to different foods” (including chocolate). The science is based on thousands of individual  studies (including 12,000 identical twins to understand the impact of DNA). And it’s highly personalised. For example, I took part in an early pilot a few years ago and amongst other insights, I was delighted to discover that consuming dark chocolate (in moderation, i.e. 5-6 squares at a time) doesn’t cause my blood sugar levels to ‘spike’, and definitely does satiate me.  On the less good side coffee (black or with milk) causes my blood sugar levels to spike.

For more on the ZOE study (and how to sign up), please see HERE.

And for those interested, yes, we are planning another ‘Craft Chocolate Conversation‘ with Tim (register your interest HERE). Jonathan, one of Tim’s co-founders and ZOE’s CEO, has also done a podcast/YouTube interview with Tim and I to be released sometime soon. And Jonathan has a great interview podcast with Azeem Azhar explaining ZOE.

Conclusions

While you wait for your personalised nutrition plan, please don’t believe everything you read about chocolate (or any other food). Check out the sample sizes behind any studies whose results are “too good to be true”. 

And learn from the lessons of history. For the past 400+ years in Europe and 4,000+ years in South America, we’ve learnt that chocolate is delicious and filling. And it doesn’t need loads of sugar and additives to be delicious (in fact if sugar is the first ingredient listed on the label, we’d STRONGLY advise putting the bar back on the shelf).

To paraphrase the great Michael Pollan “eat craft chocolate, not too much, mostly dark”. And if you want great flavour, remember to check out the source of the beans, as without great beans (or grapes), you can’t make a great chocolate (or wine).

Below are a bunch of favourite new bars from the team for you to experiment with. See if you find that smelling them really fills you up as much as savouring them. And remember, craft chocolate is nutritionally dense (and not full of sugar), so relax and delight in savouring them; keep thinking how filling they are…

Wishing you a great weekend, and hope that if you are in the UK the storms didn’t cause too much damage.

Spencer

P.S. If you are near Glasgow this weekend, do drop into the Glasgow Whisky Festival to say hi to Rachel, Nick and Iona who will be pairing craft chocolates with a range of whiskies (learn more about this HERE).

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“Do it Right” with Puchero

One of the greatest pleasures at Cocoa Runners is finding great new bars, beans and makers. Another is savouring these bars with a great coffee.

The latest maker to join the Cocoa Runners library, Puchero, enables us to combine both of these. Marco and Paloma moved from London, giving up their respective careers in finance and physiotherapy to establish a specialty coffee roastery and now a craft chocolate factory in Valladolid, Spain. See below for some of their amazing bars, and read on for a little of their story and why “doing it right” with ‘BLIC’ makes their bars so special.

History

Speaking to Marco and Paloma over Zoom is a reminder of how, pre-Covid, it was possible to live, travel and work across not just Europe, but also the US and Asia. And how much we yearn to return to this ‘normality’ as soon as possible (although Brexit isn’t going to make this as easy as it was!).

Marco hails from a small town near Turin (Italy) and as a teenager he spent a year at a US high school in Hopewell Junction, Upstate New York. His desire for international adventures continued, and as part of university studies, Marco won an Erasmus grant to study in Valladolid, Spain. And that’s where he met Paloma. Marco persuaded Paloma to move to Italy, and then London, where ironically they lived a stone’s throw from our Old Street office (and even though we’ve many pubs and coffee shops in common, sadly we didn’t meet then).

After the intensity of a few years of London’s financial services, Marco persuaded Paloma to take a break from her work as a physiotherapist and go travelling in Asia and the Americas. They travelled all over South East Asia; The Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar and Singapore (they missed out on Cambodia as the Laotian border guards turned them away for trying to cross on a rented Vietnamese motor bike!).

While in Vietnam they met Michael Gomez Wood who introduced them to his work in specialty coffee, finding crops that could be grown by displaced hill tribes in Laos, Indonesia India and Vietnam. For more on Michael’s work, please check out his NGO, the wonderfully named Filanthrope.

As they travelled more in Asia, and then the Americas, Marco and Paloma became more and more enthralled with the idea of running their own small specialty coffee roastery.

And when they (eventually) returned to Spain, Marco and Paloma worked with Michael to set up a specialty coffee roastery. Within a year, they were winning awards and customers throughout Spain.

Within three years they’d decided on a new challenge: Crafting chocolate. Again they were helped by Mike. And again, they’ve produced some wonderful products.

Despite the similarities of cocoa and coffee (beans, roasting, etc.), Marco discovered a series of new challenges. As he describes it; “[chocolate] has so many variables … it’s not just roasting … there are so many variables that can impact flavour … you have to do so many tests”.  And the changing weather and climate of their operation in Hornillos de Eresma (Valladolid Province) means that tempering is particularly challenging.

What to look for in their bars. Doing it right: 

Puchero’s bars use an image of a cross section of a pine tree trunk to evoke the trees that surround their operation. And then they use the tagline “Do It Right”. And they definitely “do it right”. From the get-go, all their bars have a great melt, including their milk bars which despite having a fudgy texture, with softish snap, also have a great melt that lingers. All their bars play tribute to the different beans they work with (Kokoa Kamili, Zorzal, El Castillero, Idukki, Soconusco, Paquibato and more). There are also some intriguing flavour combinations; from Pasiega cow butter to croissant infused milk and from sourdough encrusted bars to punchy pine nuts.

… With B.L.I.C. 

Above this, all Puchero’s bars have what wine enthusiasts describe as “BLIC” – Balance, Length, Intensity and Complexity. Whether it’s their Paquibato, Philippines nibs bar or their Zorzal milk croissant infused bar, you’ll go on a flavour journey that really DEVELOPS. Just as a great wine (and a great coffee) takes you through a flavour wave, Puchero’s bars are really worth savouring and sharing. Where you end is always radically different from the initial flavours, tastes and textures. (Note: If you’ve not been to a virtual tasting and want to know more about what we mean by ‘the flavour wave’, developed by Rebecca Palmer, James Hoffmann and Professor Barry Smith for us, please see HERE, and do come to a tasting!).

You’ll be too late to get these bars in time for Valentine’s Day tomorrow, but console yourself with 10% off any of their bars with this code for the next 48 hours: PUCH10

And you aren’t too late to get a virtual tasting or gift subscription tasting certificate, see HERE. As ever, thanks for your support.

Spencer

P.S. We’ve had a busy week of podcasts and YouTube videos; here are a few:

  • I did a podcast about ‘craft chocolate DJing’ with Flipboard. Listen HERE, and read more about the concept HERE.
  • Rachel McCormack has been chatting with Bare Bones and The Scotsman’s food and drink podcast, on pairing craft chocolate and whisky. Listen HERE.
  • Nick Baskett from Bar Talks talks about speciality coffee, craft chocolate and Valentine’s Day HERE (and he’s curated a box with us, which he explains in the video).
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Getting ‘In Synch’ via Craft Chocolate

This week’s blog post is an attempt to suggest how craft chocolate, and the stories of the farmers and makers, will make your Valentine’s Day even more synchronised, stimulating and sensual,  via two “Ms” (not M&Ms!):

  • Mimetic Behaviour
  • Mirroring

Some of this may seem a bit theoretical. But hopefully it’ll provide some food for thought. And some fun experiments.

If you’d rather go straight the chocolate, please just go straight to our selections HERE, and do join one of Valentine’s Day tastings HERE.

Mimetic Behaviour

Ever wondered what’s really happening when suddenly everyone around you is fascinated by a song, planning to run a marathon, wearing a certain colour, reading an author, or eating salted caramels? Or at a more visceral level, have you ever wondered why when one child is interested in ‘toy A’ in the playbox suddenly all the other children want the same toy? Or what is really happening with FOMO (fear of missing out)?

Back in the 1960s, Rene Girard, a French polymath, published a theory of human behaviour based off reading Cervantes, Shakespeare, Stendhal, Proust, and Dostoevsky, etc. that offered an intriguing answer. He suggested that “we desire according to the desire of the other … we rely on mediators or models to help us understand who and what to desire”. Put another way, when we see others taking enjoyment from something, we want to ‘mimic’ that. And when we see someone else getting pleasure from the same thing we enjoy, this also gives us a psychological ‘boost’.

Many of the conclusions Girard came to from applying this idea are pessimistic and controversial (for example, his theory on scapegoats and it being easier to agree on what we stand against rather than believe in).

But he also applied his insight to explain the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of feeling a connection to, for example, someone at a concert who is smiling at the same bits of music as we enjoy them too, and how this “establishes a bond”. And it also offers an intriguing insight as to how we learn the ‘instinct’ of disgust (which may not be instinctual…) and why this is so different across cultures, and why the look of disgust is the same one we make when we eat something bitter.

Applying Mimesis to Craft Chocolate

Craft chocolate is one of those things that (almost) everyone enjoys. And savouring craft chocolate is a great way of synchronising your delight and emotions. Sure you can share your passion for a piece of music. But how many of your friends have the same music ‘tastes’? And more to the point, does your partner, or Valentine, share the same music taste? The same is true of books (and that’s why book clubs are still so popular). 

So whilst you may have to compromise on what music to listen to or film to view with your partner this Valentine’s Day, craft chocolate shouldn’t be a compromise. (Almost) everyone loves chocolate, especially craft chocolate. Sure you may have individual favourites. But that’s part of the fun. It’s like discussing which song from your favourite artist you like most with a fellow fan. It’s not like debating punk versus classical music.

At our tastings, it’s wonderful to see how craft chocolate is a common bond and source of delight. Indeed one of the most uplifting parts of our virtual tastings is witnessing the enjoyment of people (anonymously) sharing one another’s descriptions and delights (note: this obviously isn’t true of some of the ‘challenging’ bars like the 100%, but that’s still fun). Craft chocolate’s flavours, textures, sensuality, and depths provide a great bridge to bond and enjoy together.

If you don’t believe this; try it. Select one of our Valentine’s Day treats, or Chocolarder’s truffles, and savour the chocolate together. As you find chocolates you both enjoy, it’ll showcase the psychological power of mimesis. And it’s fun. And stimulating. And sensual.

 And come to a virtual tasting session! See HERE for the reviews.

Mirroring

What’s really extraordinary is that, in the last few years, neuroscientists have started to back up Girard’s theories with experiments that show how shared experiences and narratives bring people together not just psychologically but also physiologically. Literally people’s heart rates, breathing, pupil dilations, hormone releases, etc. will synchronise as they read (or see) the same stories. 

To read more about this, please see some interesting articles and podcasts below, with links to the original research by Perez et al. (and it’s their image above in the header):

https://lukeburgis.com/mimetic-desire/
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2211124721011396
https://violenceandreligion.com/mimetic-theory/
https://www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/927995
https://mimeticmargins.com/2016/01/25/mimetic-food-habits
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2211124721011396 (hard going!)
https://news.sky.com/story/our-heartbeats-synchronise-while-were-listening-to-stories-researchers-find-12408000
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hcuMLQVAgEg
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RgAcOqVRfYA
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=72svGiOaKMk

 If you are into book clubs, you’ll already instinctively understand this. You can explore the work we’re doing on book clubs HERE.

But if you want to take your craft chocolate savouring to a new level, why not also read the stories of the farmers and makers in the chocolates you are enjoying with your partner at the same time? Unlike mass produced chocolate and confectionery, we know where the beans come from and where they are crafted for every bar (and bonbon) we sell. And on the website and bar pages, we’ve the stories that explain the inspiration behind all our makers, and more, and more of the farmers, co-operatives and NGOs with whom they are working.

If you want to hear more about why this is important and experience how moving it can be, please see the ‘Craft Chocolate in Conversation‘ we had with Dr Kristy Leissle HERE (and taste along with the accompanying chocolate HERE). And we are excited that for our next conversation with Kristy we’ll be hearing even more from Benjamin, who will share his experiences of what growing up, and working, on a Ghanaian cocoa farm was really like.

As ever, thanks for your support. 

And please do avoid mimetic FOMO: Please place your orders for Valentine’s Day soon (the last day for safe delivery here in the UK really is Thursday). Find everything you’ll need HERE.

Spencer

P.S. If you want to test your knowledge about St Valentine’s Day, we’ve assembled a short multiple choice quiz of 8 questions. Please see HERE. We’ll pick one winner next Thursday and send out their prize; a Valentine’s Day hamper; to arrive (Royal Mail permitting) to celebrate the 14th in style!

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Is chocolate REALLY an aphrodisiac?

cocao nibs heart

“Over 90% of Americans are planning to give chocolate or confectionery this Valentine’s Day”

FoodNavigator, USA

Great idea! But we wish that more of this gifting was of craft chocolate. So please do your part; treat yourself, your partner and any other loved ones to some of the treats we’ve assembled this Valentine’s Day.

As you do this, if the mood so takes you, please see the below for a (brief) history of chocolate and sex, starting with some definitions before moving onto some debunking. But fear not: Even though technically chocolate hasn’t been proven to be a “biochemical aphrodisiac”, it’s still a great way to show and share your affection. Especially on Valentine’s day.

Definitions and History

An aphrodisiac is defined as “a food, drink, or other thing that stimulates sexual desire”, or “a substance that increases sexual desire, sexual attraction, sexual pleasure, or sexual behavior” (Wikipedia).

Chocolate makers, pundits, medical ‘experts’ and many others would have us believe that chocolate is a physical aphrodisiac. This linking of sex and chocolate isn’t new. From the first time the conquistadors saw chocolate, the two have been “intimately associated”. To quote Bernal Díaz Castillo (chronicler of Hernan Cortéz´s conquest of Mexico), Montezuma would regularly consume “50 great jars of prepared cacao and foam … which they said was for success with woman”.

And even though much of chocolate’s initial take up in Europe was driven by the Catholic Church (come to a virtual tasting to find out more), chocolate’s association with sex continued to be consummated. For Casanova chocolate was the “very elixir of love” and the notorious Marquis de Sade celebrated its potency, begging for it to be brought to his boudoir.

In Britain, Henry Stubbe, a 17th century physician, was a passionate supporter, writing in The Natural History of Chocolate (1662) of the “great use of chocolate in Venery [sexual indulgence], and for supplying the Testicles with a Balsam, or a Sap.” And Stubbe converted Charles II to his way of thinking, with Charles II spending a staggering £229 10s 8d on chocolate and cocoa in 1669 alone; considerably more even than he paid as a stipend to his various mistresses.

Current Claims

Today chocolate is still associated with being an aphrodisiac, capable of working all sorts of miracles. In part these claims are based off this history and increasingly they are also based off claims associated with the myriad of chemicals contained in chocolate.

Most of these claims are based off four chemicals, described briefly below: 

  1. Theobromine: Theobromine is to chocolate what caffeine is to coffee; that is to say: the main stimulant. But whilst theobromine INCREASES the heart rate, it DECREASES blood pressure. It’s the “stimulant that relaxes”. (Note: dogs can’t metabolize chocolate, and it can lead to really unpleasant reactions in them … so don’t ruin Valentine’s Day by treating your dog).
  2. Phenethylamine (PEA): Phenethylamine works by stimulating the release of endorphins and dopamine. It works the same way as an exercise makes you feel good (and sometimes high). Along with oxytocin, PEA is also produced in the first flush of love (it also can create migraines in a small number of people … so you’ve been warned!).
  3. Trytophan: Trytophan is a chemical that the brain uses to make serotonin, which, in high, levels can produce feelings of elation, even ecstasy. It can also make you sleepy. And in addition to chocolate, turkey, milk oats and various nuts are also very high in trytophan.
  4. Quercetin: Quercetin is a flavonoid that has anti-inflammatory properties and is claimed to work similarly to Viagra by relaxing blood vessels and increasing blood flow to genitalia. Again, chocolate contains lots of quercetin (as do many other fruits).

The Bad News

Unfortunately the biochemical claims for any of these chemicals as a physical aphrodisiac seem… stretched. 

  • Even though chocolate does contain PEA, and as people fall in love their brains produce PEA, the human digestive system breaks down this PEA very quickly. So no matter how much (or how fast) you (or your partner) eat chocolate, the PEA in chocolate won’t pass through to your brain to recreate the feeling of being in love.
  • Quercetin has so far only been shown to work for people with really poor circulation, and even then, there is a dearth of studies showing quercetin working on human genitalia.
  • At best a case can be made that theobromine and tryptophan may make your heart beat faster and make you ‘happier’. But it’s a stretch to describe this as an aphrodisiac.

The Good News

Psychologically, the news is a lot better! 

  • Gifting chocolate, and the thought of savouring chocolate, creates ANTICIPATION.
  • Gifting is also a great SIGNAL; for example it can show you’ve been thoughtful, appreciate your partners likes (and dislikes) etc. explain why and what you’ve chosen.
  • The aromas, tastes and textures of chocolate are EVOCATIVE and STIMULATING.
  • SAVOURING craft chocolate is also a wonderfully sensual and sensory pleasure. It’s MOOD ENHANCING

So we can’t promise “the Lynx effect”. Chocolate hasn’t been shown to work as a pheromone or biochemical aphrodisiac.  

But craft chocolate is a great way to start treating your Valentine. It shows you care and want to share. And it kicks off the right mood and signals your desire to savour and stimulate! For inspiration, see HERE.

Spencer

P.S. We’ve almost sold out of our in-person craft chocolate tasting on the 14th of February, but why not join our virtual Valentine’s wine and craft chocolate tasting with the Wine Society on the 11th February?

P.P.S A HUGE thanks to Kristy (and Benjamin) for the fantastic talk and tasting last Tuesday. For those of you who couldn’t make it, the video is HERE on YouTube, and the tasting box (with Kristy’s book) is available HERE.

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Celebrating St Valentine

So January is almost over. And at least here in England, we are waving goodbye to all remaining Covid restrictions. So we feel it’s time to start thinking about Valentine’s Day.

We’ve a cornucopia of great pairings and presents (see HERE). And we’re also planning an in person tasting on Monday the 14th February at 6.00pm in central London (see HERE) in our new office (which is close to some amazing restaurants for the afterparty!).

Over the next couple of weeks we’ll be discussing chocolate and love, starting with a quick history of Valentine’s Day and how it became linked with chocolate. And next week we will explore some of the facts and myths of chocolate as aphrodisiac.

Origins

Valentine’s Day’s origin is murky. Many academics cite its most likely origin as the Roman Festival of Lupercalia, where young Roman men would strip off, grab a whip and run after their (potential) partners to try to, 1, impress them and then, 2, spank them (in the hope of increasing their fertility).

Lots of alcohol and Bacchanalia was involved, and this festival continued through the decline of the Roman Empire. Indeed a variant of this tradition lives on in the Czech Republic and Hungary where on Easter Sunday men arm themselves with a whip called a pomlázka, and go from door to door, spanking women on the bottom. The women then soak the men with a bucket of cold water.

St Valentine

The Catholic Church recognises a number of different saints called Valentine; many of who’s martyrdoms and miracles are lost to history.

The mechanics by which (one or more) of these Saint Valentines became associated with romance and Valentine’s Day is also murky. Most stories revolve around a Roman priest, called Valentine, who was put to death by the Emperor Claudius in 269AD for refusing to renounce his faith. Pope Gelasius added St Valentine to the calendar of Saints in 496AD with his honouring on the 14th of February (i.e., the day before Lupercalia). And at the same time, Pope Gelasius banned Lupercalia as a “pagan festival” to be replaced by Christian customs such as honouring St Valentine’s heroism.

As time went on, more and more legends have been associated with St Valentine, including:

  • When Emperor Claudius II outlawed marriage for young men on the basis that single men make better soldiers, St Valentine defied this rule by continuing to marry young lovers. When Claudius discovered these clandestine marriages, he had St Valentine put to death.
  • Before being put to death St Valentine is said to have sent the first ever Valentine’s Day card. After falling in love with his jailor’s daughter, he wrote her a letter signed ‘from your Valentine’.
  • St Valentine is also said to have “cut hearts from parchment … to remind of our vows to God’s love” and give these to soldiers and persecuted Christians, giving rise the widespread use of hearts on St Valentines day.

Despite the charming nature of these stories, their historical accuracy is dubious. For example, Claudius II is recorded to have encouraged his soldiers to “take two or three women as wives” after his successful wars against the Goths. And quite why a celibate priest would write a love letter to his jailor’s daughter raises a number of other questions.

However, it did give the Church a celebration and some great stories to counter the pagan licentiousness of Lupercalia.

From Chaucer to Cadbury

The first direct record we have of Valentine’s day as a romantic occasion in England is Geoffrey Chaucer in his 1375 poem ‘The Parliament of Foules’ where he wrote ‘For this was Seynt Valentyne’s day / When every foul cometh ther to choose his mate”.

William Shakespeare, John Donne, Edmund Spenser and a raft of poets and authors have continued this tradition of linking romance, love and St Valentines, and provided great fodder for various card makers. Indeed in the 18th and 19th centuries publishers produced various books with verses, rhymes and doggerels for young lovers to copy and send to their ‘Valentines’.

Until recently Valentine’s day was celebrated with lovers exchanging love notes and such. Chocolate wasn’t involved (nor were flowers or roses). This oversight is odd given that the likes of Casanova, Charles II, Montezuma and the Marquis de Sade were all convinced that chocolate is an aphrodisiac so they clearly were missing a trick (for more on chocolate as an aphrodisiac, please see next week’s blog post).

Chocolate and Valentine’s Day

It wasn’t until the late 19th century that chocolate started to be linked with St Valentine’s day. In thanks to some changes in the way we consumed chocolate and some super smart marketing.

During the 19th century, chocolate moved from being a liquid drink to a solid bar, bonbons, etc. that are eaten (for more on this, please come to a virtual tasting).

And this opened up all sorts of opportunities.

For example, this transition to bars and bonbons inspired Richard Cadbury to seize on the Victorian fascination with gifting cupid themed boxes for “keepsakes” on Valentine’s day. With hindsight, the move is obvious, but Cadbury was the first to created a love heart shaped “Fancy Box” full of chocolate bonbons and chocolate covered fruits. Cadbury launched these boxes in 1868 and the rest is history. Chocolate and Valentine’s day have been intimately linked, with the US alone gifting and sharing more than 40 million boxes of chocolates on Valentine’s Day.

Today (and Monday the 14th!)

Craft chocolate is all about sharing and giving. And whatever your views on the veracity of the legends surrounding St Valentine’s day, show your passion to your beloved with some craft chocolate (see below for some suggestions).

And we’d love to see at least some of you in person on the 14th; more details below and HERE.

Spencer

P.S. You aren’t too late to join our Craft Chocolate in Conversation session with Dr Kristy Leissle on the 25th of January (i.e. next Tuesday!). Please see below and HERE. It’s free to dial in, and it’s a brilliant opportunity to learn from one of the world’s greatest chocolate and cocoa experts on what’s “really going on”, and bust a bunch of myths.

P.P.S. Answers to the 2022 Quiz are now available on our site, and we’ll be sending out prizes this week (and congratulations to the more than thirty people who answered all the questions correctly!).

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How to Spend Less and Save the Planet

Can you think of an advert for any supermarket that doesn’t end by focusing on price? Or one for insurance or energy services that doesn’t offer you the best deal?

Can you now try to think of an advert for a ‘switch’ that could save most households over 20% of their weekly expenditure on a raft of products? And as an added bonus, this action or ‘switch’ also helps save the planet.

The switch here isn’t a new product or service. It’s more fundamental. It’s a change of approach. It’s about throwing away less drinks and foods (including chocolate).

And it’s not just consumers who can make this change. Retailers like us can also do our part to reduce waste (and, spoiler alert, see below for more of our ‘lucky dip’ boxes which were launched 18 months ago to this end).

This week’s blog entry is an invitation to grab some great craft chocolate bargains from some supply chain challenges we had last year. And it’s also a recap on how to read the label to help you, as a consumer, to waste less by understanding labels and thinking a little more laterally.

So the next time you see an advertisement saying how much you can save by switching supermarket, energy supplier, insurance company, etc. remember that there are some even bigger savings to be had.

According to Friends of the Earth:

  • The average UK family spends £470 per annum on food they bin.
  • One third of all food produced across the globe is lost or wasted.
  • 50 million chickens are wasted in the UK each year.
  • 100 million pints of milk are tipped down the drain each year in the UK.

We can’t directly help with the 50 million chickens or 100 million pints of milk. But we can help you, and us, reduce chocolate waste. And grab a bargain along the way.

1 – Learn to read the label: The difference between “best before” and “use by”

One of the biggest factors leading to consumers wasting food, and drinks, is the result of misunderstood labels. In the UK (and the EU and US) almost all foods have to indicate a product’s “best before” or “use by” date.

These two labels were designed to help consumers avoid waste and eat safely. However, most consumers are unaware of the difference. And this leads to considerable food wastage, with lots of perfectly safe food being chucked because of a simple misunderstanding.

So here is an attempt to reduce this misunderstanding by clarifying these terms, and then applying them craft (and mass produced) chocolate.

  • Use by dates: This means that the product contains an ingredient or additive that ‘goes off’. So it’s generally a really bad idea to eat after the use by date. But this is complicated by the cautiousness of many makers, and it’s often OK to eat some products (e.g. a yoghurt, or milk chocolate) some time after their use by date. Just take a sniff, and a small bite, before you really dig in. (And also please note that the way you store products with a use by date can also bring forward the use by date if the product requires special conditions for storage (e.g. refrigeration, not opening, etc.).
  • Best Before dates: These are arbitrary dates applied by the producer. Food and drink can be safely eaten after the date, but the flavour and/or texture may be impaired. And it’s up to the manufacturer to determine the best before dates. And again, storage conditions play a part here.

What does this mean for chocolate?

  • Milk and white chocolate of all varieties clearly need to have use by dates (yes, this includes alternative m!lks like oats etc. too). And, see above, most makers err on being overcautious here for fear of the way retailers, and consumers, store their bars. Again, follow the sniff test.
  • Mass produced dark chocolate also often has use by dates as they contain various additives and preservatives (e.g. butterfat, whey powder, palm oils, etc.) that go off.
  • Dark craft chocolate should not have a use by date; but by law it does need to have a best before date. There is no consensus around what this date should be; most makers will suggest a year from the date of production, but others argue for 18 or 24 months. And I’m quite happy to try dark bars that are three to five years old (we’ve been storing some). However these dark bars may go a little ‘out of temper’; i.e. they won’t melt in the mouth as easily and their mouthfeel is slightly different.

And for when bars, especially dark ones, go out of temper, this is an opportunity to be a bit more inventive and creative, and reduce food waste by thinking a little more laterally.

2 – Think laterally, and be a bit more creative

A bunch of entrepreneurs over the past few years have done a sterling job in promoting ‘odd’ or ‘ugly’ fruit and vegetables. Similarly a bunch of chefs have come up with recipes, videos and programmes galore on how to use leftovers, etc.

The same sort of lateral thinking can be used for chocolate that is out of perfect temper, etc. Here are some personal examples; starting with some pretty obvious ones:

  1. If a bar seems ‘out of temper’ (i.e. a bit brittle, doesn’t melt easily, etc.) try gently warming it up by, for example, placing it on warm radiator, in your back pocket, between your legs (this suggestion is from a friend in the wine industry who swears by this to warm overly chilled wine) or anywhere that is relatively warm. A couple of other suggestions:
    • Do remember not to leave the chocolate there for too long.
    • Do use the wrapper to stop any inconvenient melting if you overheat the bar.

(NOTE: this trick works for bars that have been badly stored as well as past their best before or use by dates).

  1. Treat yourself to some hot chocolate (either with water, milk, etc.).
  2. Bake or cook with craft chocolate (e.g. try a mole, add dark chocolate to a stew or mole, etc.).
  3. If that’s too much ‘faff’ just heat up the chocolate either in a basin suspended in boiling water or, even easier, in a microwave. And then you can, for example:
    • Dip in, or pour over, some fruit (strawberries, grapes, figs, apricots, oranges), or even try vegetables (trust me, it does work!).
    • Drizzle on top of digestives (this is my personal favourite; you’ll get chocolate digestives that are SO MUCH better than anything you can buy in any supermarket or delicatessen); if you really want to push the boat out, add some marshmallows to make ‘smores’.

We’d also love to get your suggestions here too; please fill in THIS FORM (or click the link here: https://forms.gle/CoCb5Pkx7V2wpkWRA) and for the three best suggestions, we’ll send you one of our lucky dip taster boxes to thank you.

3 – Take advantage of suppliers’ ‘unforced errors’

Another major reason driving food waste is consumers purchasing more than they need as a result of; irresistible offers, panic buying, having sudden changes of plan, etc.

All too often the same happens with retailers and distributors. We overestimate demand. We overcompensate for supply chain issues.

Mea Culpa; this happens at Cocoa Runners. Last year, during some of the sudden lockdowns, we were scrambling to keep up with demand, in particular for virtual tasting kits for couples and individuals where we needed LOTS of small taster bars. And Brexit messed up our supply chain and logistics, so in a bunch of cases we had to re-purchase stock that was stuck in warehouses all around the world.

The upshot is that we’ve some excess inventory of a few taster bars. So we’ve created some lucky dip boxes for these taster bars (see HERE). We’d love your help in not wasting these (some of the bars do have milk, but all are well before their ‘use by’ date).

And we’ve also a few ‘standard’ taster boxes of full size bars where again either because of supply chain issues (and yes, this is STILL happening because of Brexit) or because our forecasting was off, we’ve some stock of dark chocolate bars that are either just past, or close to, their ‘best before’ dates.

A quick note on pricing

As a general rule, at Cocoa Runners we never discount our bars as we think that this encourages ‘commoditisation’ and runs against the ethos of valuing the craft, and efforts, of our makers, farmers and cooperatives (note: an exception here is that subscribers to our monthly boxes, as a membership perk, get 10% off all purchases of bars and gifts).

And this is why in our ‘standard’ lucky dip boxes we don’t specify which bars and makers are included. But we do guarantee that the price you pay for a lucky dip box will be at least 40%, and sometimes 60-70%, less than the standard retail. And we’ve both 100% boxes (great for thinking laterally in the kitchen with) and dark bars (great for snacking and savouring) HERE and below.

For the taster bars we’ve made an exception and are letting people know what’s in the boxes, so if you’ve ever wanted to try Zotter’s award winning butter caramel bar, Jordi’s HIT with nibs, Chocolate Makers’ Tres Hombre’s milk bar etc. grab this opportunity. See HERE.

As ever, thanks for your support.

Spencer

P.S. You aren’t too late to join our wine tasting with Corney & Barrow on the 20th, and a Craft Chocolate in Conversation session with Kristy Leissle on the 25th.

P.P.S. We will announce the winners of the Craft Chocolate 2022 Quiz in the middle of next week, so if you haven’t yet given it a go; please try HERE.

P.P.P.S. Delighted to see that Morrison’s is no longer printing ‘use by’ dates on milk it sells; instead it recommends a “sniff test” to help customers avoid wasting perfectly fine milk. Way to go!